Jerry Saltz: Venice Is Losing a Great Artwork, For a Really Dumb Reason

Venice, Italy ---
Charles Ray’s Boy With a Frog, in Venice. (For a few more days.) Photo: Holger Leue/Corbis

Here we go again. A handful of politicians and citizens get their low-information artistic panties in a twist, get insulted by whatever work of public art they decide offends them, and start a brouhaha to remove it. The act is always the same. Even though no one else has any objections, city and state politicians become so terrified of standing up for art and alienating any voter that they roll over. Especially if there’s a penis or vagina involved and if the location of the public sculpture happens to be one of the most extraordinary spaces in all of Christendom. Welcome to the farcical version of Death in Venice.

After allowing the Punta della Dogana — a triangular seventeenth-century customs house that sits on a point between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal — to decay for decades, in 2007 Venice signed a 33-year lease with the bazzillionare French-luxury-goods magnate François Pinault to turn it into a public museum. When it opened in 2009, Charles Ray’s incredible hyper-naturalistic stark-white eight-foot high Boy With Frog was installed on the point. The sculpture depicts a naked boy holding up a large frog by its leg and looking at it. Because he’s enlarged, naked, and rendered in classic realist style, you instantly connect the boy with David. The frog becomes Goliath. In fact it is a goliath frog. Echoes of other free-standing male nudes come to mind, from ancient-Greek sculpture to Michelangelo, Donatello, and Rodin. The enlarged boy is an alien being beholding an alien being, coming to grips with otherness, acting with the most human quality of all: curiosity. It’s a sort of abstract Birth of the World. To the art world, Ray seems to be saying, “Contemporary art feels played out, so I’m retrieving familiar forms and techniques to make something old new again.” A rebirth of the world.

The sculpture instantly became a beloved citizen of Venice. Tourists constantly have their pictures taken with it. But although Pinault’s lease is good for decades, the tip of the Dogana is controlled by the city. Four times a year, the permit has had to be renewed to keep the sculpture there. It always has been, until now.

Enter the unhappy offended few, demanding that the sculpture be removed because, according to the New York Times, they missed a nineteenth-century cast-iron lamppost that had once been there. Never mind that the original lamppost isn’t what would go back — a reproduction of it would. Others didn’t like the penis. (They call themselves Italians?!) The crybabies should look closer and complain that the boy only has one nipple.

The Times reports that locals reacted in an “uproar” at the sculpture’s proposed removal. But Italian politicians are too scared to defend contemporary art, nudity, and what Franco Miracco, former member of the board of the Venice Biennale and an adviser to various Italian cultural ministers, called Pinault a “Napoleon of contemporary art.” (The fight wouldn’t be complete without a little xenophobia.) And so this tiny minority of malcontents and moaners will get their birdbrained way. On Tuesday, Boy With Frog is to be removed and a reproduction of a lamppost will be erected in its place. Idiot winds blow.

Saltz: Venice Is Losing a Great Artwork